emotion (n.)

1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from French émotion (16c.), from Old French emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from Latin emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from assimilated form of ex “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (from PIE root *meue- “to push away”). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.


From the Online Etymology Dictionary


Many people struggle to understand how it can be helpful to connect with difficult feelings. Of course, they are partly right. Experiencing difficult feelings can be very hard. Imagine feeling the full impact of losing someone you love, being rejected, facing illness and so on. Yet, there is a much bigger consequence to not feeling or to exaggerating one’s feelings than it is commonly anticipated. I think it is fascinating that the etymology of the word emotion is ‘outward movement’ in Latin, though the origin is rather obvious even in the contemporary English word, e-motion. The fluid movement of feelings is in my view at the core of good mental health, and yet so difficult for many of us to allow for.

            This week has been a prime example for me of how essential for our mental health, even life-saving it is to go with the flow of our feelings. I had many reasons to be pleased with myself and some milestones to celebrate. I also received rejection and disappointment and like so many times during this period of the never ending pandemic, I heard news of the imminent threat of illness or even death of people I cared about. Most of the time, I could have easily become stuck to one of the above emotional realities, usually the most negative one and block the other feelings from taking stock. Yet, it was my ability to respond to all of the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing, which made navigating a complex and intense week possible.

            I would like to outline here some common emotional responses which I encounter frequently in my clinical practice, and which in different ways block the movement of feelings and become detrimental for the person’s mental health. I think these responses correlate to different attachment and personality styles, but they are invariably maladaptive. Let’s say the person in question has just received the news that somebody they love has come down with a nasty cold (a major trigger for anxiety nowadays!). Here are four potentially different responses to the same scenario according to each of the designated characters below.

The dismissive optimist:

Oh, come on, this is just a cold, nothing to worry about. Colds are after all essential for our immune systems. Even if you are a little short of breath, you will be fine. You can (and therefore I can) safely forget about it and go on about your day as though nothing is at stake!


The dramatiser:

OMG! Do you really have a cold? Have you tested for covid? What, you are short of breath?! Do you have an oximeter? It may be that your oxygen levels are falling. Oh, you poor thing! Shall I come and spend some time with you? Though as a second thought, I would rather not get what you have…


The impulsive adventurer:

What? You can’t go dancing because you have a cold? Darling, sweating is the best medicine for a virus. And fun as well. We can sweat this cold out together. If we have lots of fun, we may lose ourselves and forget about the cold, forget about death and live happily ever after!


The fearful worrier:

Well, now that you have a cold, I can see how frail and dependent I am, as it doesn’t take long for someone to drop dead these days, and then, if you die from that cold, I will have nobody in the world to take care of me and I will be vulnerable and alone thereafter!


Needless to say these are deliberately caricatured responses to unsettling feelings, and hopefully most of us can be more measured in our reactions. However, I think we are all likely to recognise someone we know in these characters. The problem with all the above responses in my view is that they are fixed and inflexible ad they do not allow for the movement of feeling which would be normal in an uncertain situation. The letter ‘e’ before motion is these days linked with the internet and electronic connection. Its origin is in the term ‘electricity’, another type of energy, which like water needs to be in constant flux. And it is precisely this flux like the flow of a river descending from a mountain which makes unsettling feelings almost welcome, as they are almost always succeeded by lighter feelings and, like the moving water in the river, they allow us to stay tuned in, fully alive and connected.

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